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Marriage Customs Of Abyssinia

( Originally Published 1897 )

The people of Abyssinia make a broad distinction between civil and religious marriages. The former are hardly considered binding, and so can be dissolved on some very slight pretext, while the latter constitute a solemn tie that cannot be broken. The consequence is that only those whose marriages turn out happily bind themselves together for the rest of their days. Most Abyssinians prefer a more temporary and experimental form of alliance.

The civil marriage takes place in a tent made of wooden stakes and reeds, and there the feast is held. Certain places which we may call " the Seats of the Mighty" are reserved for distinguished people, but otherwise there is very great freedom. All are welcome without regard to age or rank, and feast to their heart's content. But those who have already done so must leave so as to make room for hungry mortals outside awaiting their turn, and sometimes a good deal of force is necessary to expel them. The bride is carried on a man's back and deposited on a stool. The bridegroom, probably in imitation of the ancient custom of carrying off wives by force, takes the bride in his arms and carries her either to his own house or round her own. The crowd of invited guests follow him and help to hold the orthodox nuptial canopy over her.

The men appear to be devoid of all sense of chivalry, and are very harsh and rough in their manner towards a wife. Should an angry husband box her ears, or strike her with a stick, the wife will bear her punishment with admirable fortitude. In some cases, if the man is not very much the stronger of the two, she may strike her husband back, but as a rule the injured, woman replies with a torrent of abuse and stinging insults. Where the marriage tie is so loose it need not be wondered at that married women are often great flirts, and endeavour by means of languishing eyes to attract attention from those who happen to take their fancy.

When Abyssinians arrive at an advanced age they very frequently become monks or nuns, whether they be rich or poor, married or unmarried. The rich then deliver over their possessions to their children.

The handsome and well-built people of Somaliland, some of whom a year ago were so much admired at the Crystal Palace, have a curious custom of shutting up the bride and bridegroom for seven days. Here follows the description of an eye-witness. We were invited into a steaming mat-hut, and then formally presented to a youthful bridegroom who appeared as disconsolate as a fresh widower. This might have been due to the suffocating effect of the unadulterated incense which ascended from a small copper brazier placed on the floor, or to the sudden loss of a coy bride who, on our approach, had taken refuge in an adjoining compartment, which was sacred. As a prelude to the holy estate of matrimony, bridegroom and bride are confined during seven days in one of these stifling double-roomed dens, and are supposed to hold a daily levee open to all relatives and friends, who are licensed to chaff them to their hearts' content."

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